I find three causes for hope in my colleague Kathy Lally’s interview with Russian artist Pyotr Pavlensky, the 29-year-old man who nailed his scrotum to the paving stones in Red Square last Sunday. First, it seems that Pavlensky is perfectly sane, and was indeed deemed so by a psychiatrist after an earlier performance piece, called “Stitch,” in which he sewed his mouth shut. Second, after the nail was removed, he was treated at a hospital and given a tetanus shot, which is a wise precaution after nailing oneself to the street.
But more important, he gave a small clue about how he understands his artistic performance:
“It was my appeal to society,” Pavlensky said Friday by telephone from St. Petersburg. “It’s not the authorities who hold people by their balls. It’s people themselves. The country will turn into a police state if people do nothing.”
This is an important inflection. The protest isn’t directed at the authorities, who by virtue of being authorities are not susceptible to artistic appeal, and may well be without conscience in the ordinary sense. Rather, the appeal is internal, to get ordinary Russians to contemplate the society which they have created. To a large degree, we enslave ourselves, through quiescence, through unnecessary submission to authority, through inaction and indifference. In many places in the world, power enslaves people in the old-fashioned, brute sense. But Pavlensky is appealing to the Russian conscience in a deeper way than mere revolutionary protest.
Will it work? Very likely, no, at least not in a direct way. It was a painful spectacle and for most people the unpleasantness of it will negate any serious contemplation of the artist’s intent. But one never knows. Artist David Wojnarowicz once sewed his mouth shut too, to protest government and societal indifference to the AIDS crisis. At the time, it seemed a freakish and gratuitous gesture. But Wojnarowicz is remembered quite differently. He isn’t universally acknowledged as a great artist, but there is a powerful nostalgia for artists with his commitment and courage and willingness to seize the most confrontational gesture. He is remembered fondly, and perhaps understood to be prophetic. It’s possible he even inspired Pavlensky.